Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Mea Maxima Culpa

My Life As A Sock Puppet

In addition to writing this blog, I am a commenter in a couple of on-line communities. Every virtual neighborhood is slightly different in tone and demeanor, but they rely on a lot of mutual trust to remain stable. One I’m a regular in is particularly tight knit. If you are from there, you know who you are. If you are a curious observer, it’s not hard to find.

In this group there is a core group of regulars that go so far as to socialize and relate with each other in the real world. It has a particularly convivial atmosphere free of much of the humorless earnestness found so many other places on the internet. Like any virtual environment with open doors, it attracts its share of trolls, strawmen, and doppelgangers. They usually raise a ruckus, get bored, and eventually leave. In the meantime all sorts of shit is stirred, hackles are raised, and tension is heightened.

More than once, the issue of treatment vis-à-vis newcomers to this group has been raised hypothetically. Is there a clique and inner circle? Is the barrier to entry too high? Is the group too intolerant of differing opinions? Is there an orthodoxy that can’t be questioned? For reasons I still can’t quite pinpoint I wanted to find out. I would prefer to rationalize my motives but I fear it may have been some morbid mix of hubris, arrogance, and mean-spiritedness.

For this prank, I created a personality typical of the many drive-by trolls the site gets, a rabid libertarian with a propensity to SHOUT in CAPS LOCK. I made some ground rules for myself:
  • I would never personally attack another commenter.
  • I would never engage in a conversation between my “real” self and my alter ego.
  • I would not take my fake opinions seriously.
  • I would try to be provocative without being offensive.
It’s the last one that was the toughest line to walk. For one thing, I never quite knew where I wanted to go. Did I want to be an obvious caricature? How should I react to responses from people I respect? What should I do if I was confronted? These were all issues I unsuccessfully wrestled with.

I also couldn't decide how outrageous I wanted to be. My first couple of comments were arguably over-the-top offensive and treated as such. It pained me to be rightfully dressed down by people for opinions I didn’t really hold. I was never willing to go full throttle and I began to pull my punches. Not surprisingly, the better I behaved, the better I got treated. The Golden Rule works to some discernable degree. Still, I knew I had ruffled feathers. Not everybody was taking to the kinder, gentler version of my bombthrower.

I also wondered how long and how far I could and/or should take it. I toyed with being a fake blogger and even set up a website with a few red meat posts. I never published the link, but at least one fellow commenter was able to follow enough breadcrumbs to find it. I have no idea how. People on the web have scary mad skilz.

I got sucked into the role playing and found myself expending too much psychic energy on my other personality. I found myself upset when argued with. I got angry when I was ridiculed, even though it was what I was going for. I was even more dismayed when I was ignored. The silent treatment has always been the most brutal punishment to me.

I also had no end game or exit strategy. I imagined I would eventually grow tired and abandon the personality and it would become just another of the many anonymous provocateurs that had come and gone.

But like many sociopaths, I wanted to be found out and stopped. There was an ego effect at work that made me drop clues. My alias was an obvious spooneristic pun that one anonymous member figured out pretty quickly. And of course, I did get caught. I doubt I'm the first multiple personality on that blog, but I am the clumsiest. I posted a comment under my “real” alias that obviously belonged to the golem. I had nearly done this earlier in the day and knew the risk, but I had to get one last cryptic shot in. The second I hit the submit button I was embarrassed, terrified, and relieved. I frantically kept hitting refresh knowing that I would be called out. I apologized to the group, but I know it’s not enough.

I went too far and I’m glad it’s over. The people on the other end of a wire have actual feelings and emotions. To amuse myself I have damaged real friendships. Maturity is respecting rights and accepting responsibility. That is why chat rooms filled with teenagers are such free-fire zones. They haven’t learned that words have meaning and consequences.

Social experiments always reveal way more about the testers than the subjects. Character is defined as how you behave when no one is watching. I learned that I had created one, but that I hadn’t shown any.

For Boodlers: Can I find redemption or forgiveness?
For Others: Have you ever posted anonymously or under a different identity just to troll?


Anonymous said...

While I'm not a Boodler (is that even what they're called), so I can't either offer or withhold forgiveness, this does give me an opportunity (sorry for the hijack) to talk about a commentor on my blog who is in essence all sock puppets. That is, he doesn't post under a consistent name; rather, he uses a different alias for each comic strip he (I'm pretty much positive it's a he) comments on. It's obvious to me that it's the same guy because when someone comments, I get an email that includes, among other information, the IP and network addresses of the originating computer; plus, I've come to recognize his writing style. Still, I always wonder if other commentors recognize him as a consistent personality, or if he intends himself to be so recongnized.

yellojkt said...

Wow! And that doesn't even include Galactic Emperor Chennux.

It's funny how regular commenters make up silly names for the group. Boodlers are the moral equivalent of Comix Cardinals.

yellojkt said...

And you're Pope Josh, but I guess your powers of forgiveness don't extend past the Style section.

Anonymous said...

yello, I never suspected that it was you - and was a bit shocked when you fessed up. I mostly found Pop Socket amusing - at least you didn't go all out and incite a Boodle riot (we all know how ugly those get). It's ok, you'll be in China and all will be forgotten.


Anonymous said...

I don't post anonymous comments merely to troll, but you've made me think.

I have an anonymous blog. I use it to express my opinions that may be harmful to certain types of people. I feel comfortable writing things that I would feel uncomfortable expressing to the entire whole. I use it to insulate those opinions from my public persona.

How is that different than trolling, then? Not trolling on another's blog, but at people in general? or am I reading too much into it?

Anonymous said...

I don't read the Achenblog regularly (once every few months?) and don't post at all in the comments section, so this is pretty much an outside view.

It looks as though, with perhaps one exception, nobody's really upset about it. There's a little bit of "Heh, you got me" and some retrospective "I wondered why he..." stuff, but no biggie. There are even a couple of "all is forgiven" posts. I don't think you really have a lot to worry about.

For what it's worth, back when Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and AOL was pretty much THE online service, I used to make up screen names/personalities all the time. I didn't get caught, though; I and a couple of other people did it to go troll-hunting.

Anonymous said...

Hey, yello -- Dreamer here.
I had no idea you were Sock Puppet, or whatever it was he called himself. What a fascinating turn of events!

As a fan of the unorthodox, I thank you for conducting this experiment. Seems to me the idea came from a good place.

("The second I hit the submit button I was embarrassed, terrified, and relieved." Ha! I think we've *all* been there, dude.)

Dreamer/Achenfan/Tom fan

Anonymous said...


It was a thoughtful experiment, tastefully done, and yours were perhaps the most interesting data points of all. Nom de plumes are part and parcel of public communication, so no harm, no foul, no worries.


Anonymous said...

Hi yello, I was the anon poster who called you a handkerchief...so if you can forgive me I can forgive you...Aw heck I forgive you anyway...it was after all an interesting experiment and I say pretty well done.


Anonymous said...

yello, you're accepting responsibilty for your actions, acknowledging the hurt and ill feelings you may have caused, and are asking for forgiveness.

Sounds like you learned a lesson, and one I'm taking to heart, too.

I forgive you, dude.
There's an answer to your first question (redemption is up to you, I think).

To answer your second question; no, I've never done that that I can recall. It's hard enough just being me (even though I post somewhat anonyomously as you do, we both know each other in the real world), you know? I'm OK with the idea that imaginary friends can be real friends. In fact, I treasure that.


Anonymous said...

your pop socket was entirely tolerable. You were easy to ignore. As opposed to one really annoying citizen of the hexagonal country who managed to get enough on my nerve to trigger nasty personal attacks in our mutual mother tongue. I'm not proud of that. All is well with your experiment. Do I have to ask forgiveness for my silent treatment of the limp pomfret?

Shrieking Denizen

Anonymous said...

The experiment issue doesn’t matter to me, so mea culpa not required (and we have a study that we can refer people to now). I admit, however, that I wouldn’t frequent a blog where this was a regular occurrence. I prefer and respect some privacy for myself and others, but if you can’t count on posters being who they say they are, well, I should be doing some “work” anyway.

So that brings up the larger issue - that it’s Achenbach that should get an apology. The Achenblog is probably already somewhat vulnerable to accusations at washingtonpost.com that it doesn’t get enough traffic. Many of the boodlers have blogs for fun or vanity, but especially we regulars should keep in mind that a trick or experiment like this can have the effect of undermining the credibility of the discussions that take place on the Achenblog, which is, of course, part of Joel’s livelihood.


The Pup said...

So, is the Achenblog as vulnerable to groupthink, or is there some room for a Muppet with chutzpah to stake out some individuality without being offensive?

My major concern was that Pop Socket would present himself in a manner that would take him seriously heard. Loved the Ron Paul rants. I was waiting for a certain William Jennings Bryan-like speech about being crucified on a cross of silver. Delivered, of course, in Ditto-head cant.

I was suspicious from the start it was a regular boodler, but when Bob S. kept denying it, I couldn't think who else might have taken up the challenge.


Needles said...

Its an interesting experiment and it was well done. I've often wondered if we did enough to make the boodle comfortable to all comers, or if we slammed the door too fast on new opinions and thoughts. Some of our disscussions on 'that one subject' have seemed to slam one side or other, one pov or other. I did think we would work past to reasoned disscussion even on that topic.

Sock Poopet (OK, this is a typo, but hey, I never messed with the name. It's my turn.)was being accepted because he didn't make personal attacks, because he was starting to join in in the general silliness as well as having his target message. He was becoming one of us. I was trying to stay out of the political stuff, I wasn't ignoring you.

I find I am feeling just a tiny bit guilty about not really talking to you. I feel like I was ignoring this guy sitting kitty corner at the table, even when he said something directly to me. I end up doing that sometimes in the rush, not catching all the people I want to say something too.

No mea culpa required, Forgiven, absolutely, completely redeemed by what you have written here.

Enjoy your China trip. My sister and I used to count the offering money for a priest of a couple of small parishes. He was very active in the National Farmers Union, and went to China in 1972, before most westerners got to go. He took hundreds of photos, and we got to see them. I've never forgotten the pictures of jade. So many intricate, delicate things inside other intricate, delicate things.


Anonymous said...

An appropriate requiem for Sock PUPPET.


Stella Dean said...

We're all entitled to redemption and forgiveness, yes?

As for the other, no, I have never posted annonymously or used a different name. I know I would get caught and then I'd be embarassed.

Anonymous said...

Yello, now I'm wondering if I myself was rude to you. :-) Personally, I think it's healthy when you trust yourself enough to play with different parts of your personality (!). No offense taken here. I did notice you're still posting on WaPo as Sock Puppet, though! And what have we learned from this experience, Mr. Jkt?

How to find Pop Socket's Blog
You referred us to your comments on another WaPo article:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/06/15/AR2007061502428_Comments.html (page is 11)
*Pop socket* is underlined, suggesting a link. Take the link.
Click on PROFILE
See blogsite reference.

Under COMMENTS, I see Pop Socket rides again with a comment on Hillary & the Sopranos!

Anonymous said...

That was me.

Mooselet said...

The question is, do you forgive yourself? Everyone else can forgive you - and it seems they have - but you've got to let it go as well. Lesson learned.

I've never commented anywhere anonymously, but I do moderate a couple of Yahoo! groups where that fine line between free speech and offensive/attacking behaviour must be tread. Delete comments and I'm accused of crimping free speech, let it go and I get all sorts of people being offended and it kicks off what used to be known as a 'flame war' - am I showing my age with that phrase? :-)

I can see why you did it - sometimes the urge to stir the pot is very powerful. But I'm glad to see you came to realize there were people on the other end of those screen name.

Now don't do it again! (That's the mother in me talking)

yellojkt said...

For all of those of you that just ignored me, that was the right thing to do. That is what I tend to do with trolls.

I do have to disagree with SoC. Joel really has nothing to do with the Boodle. His job is to keep the honey pot sweet by posting interesting kits. The boodle is a benovolent anarchy. The fortunes of WaPo.com and Joel do not rise on fall on the civility of the comments.

The Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppets are hilarious.

My sock puppet did come out and play today in the Style section. He is a registered WaPo member after all. I only promised to keep him off the boodle.

TBG said...

For the record... TSG above is not TBG.

No harm, no foul, Yello. I thought Pop Socket was kind of annoying, but starting to be a little fun.